The Southeastern Conference has never experienced better times in football than now. The league is at its zenith because it never before fielded such an outstanding stable of coaches, a commitment to excellence by every league member, as well as facilities and fan support unmatched by any conference in the country.
League members Florida and LSU have won back-to-back national championships. Georgia and Florida are considered contenders this season to make it three in a row.
The league’s star status goes beyond national titles. Head coach after head coach expounded on the strength of the league, its array of talent, its fabulous facilities and its wealth of genius on the sidelines. None was better at summing it all up than Rick Brooks, Kentucky’s coach for the past five seasons who previously served as coach for 18 seasons at Oregon and two in the NFL.
“I think it goes without saying that the coaching talent in this league is unbelievably high,” Brooks began. “It’s a great league from an X and O standpoint, coaching expertise. Nobody in the country can even come close to saying they have five coaches in their league that have won national championships.
“It is a league of great talent. Defensive speed is outstanding in this league, and just day-to-day, week-to-week it is a great league.
“We were one of the teams that everybody used to think they could put an automatic W up next to as they went into the season. It’s not that way any more. The depth, the quality of teams in the league from top to bottom is as strong as any league I’ve ever been in.”
That doesn’t include the NFL, does it?
“It does include the NFL,” Brooks said. “You know, other than the NFL, there’s no better football league in the world, in the country... . It’s just an unbelievable league. It’s a meat grinder.”
For the sake of argument, let’s examine three areas to support Brooks’ case: Top-to-bottom team quality, coaching talent and facilities.
Should the SEC again win a national title, it would mark the second trifecta in league history. Alabama went back-to-back in 1978-79 and Georgia claimed the crown in 1980.
Using that as criteria, you could argue that 1978-80 constituted the league’s heyday. The differences in the league then and now are stark, to say the least. The league was top heavy then. It is strong through 10 or 11 teams today.
In 1978, Alabama, Georgia and LSU won more than eight games. In 1979, Alabama and Auburn reached the eight-win total and in 1980, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State each won at least nine games. Each of those three seasons, half of the league’s 10 teams finished with winning records.
The comparison is a bit skewed because teams play one more regular-season game now, and virtually every league team plays in a bowl game these days. Still, eight of the league’s 12 teams won eight or more games in both 2006 and 2007. Eight teams finished with winning records in 2006; nine in 2007.
Steve Spurrier played in the league in the mid-’60s and coached at Florida from 1990-2001 before going to South Carolina in 2005. His read on the league is that “there are more teams capable of winning the conference now.”
A big part of that reason is coaching. A study this week by the Birmingham News revealed that the league never before had five coaches wearing national championship rings as are Spurrier, Florida’s Urban Meyer, LSU’s Les Miles, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer.
“The schools are committed,” Fulmer said. “They’re committed to going out and hiring great coaches. They’re committed to facilities and to recruit guys that can make a difference in your program. You’ve seen the budgets go up. It’s an unbelievable commitment in the Southeastern Conference to the quality of play.”
The most visible example of the commitment to excellence throughout the SEC is the stadiums where games are played. The size of the stadiums, the value of their seats and the fanaticism that surrounds the events all point to a conference that sets the standard for top-level play.
The SEC claims six of the nation’s top 10 college football stadiums. Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Auburn all play in stadiums with capacities in excess of 85,000.
“The venues you play in, the places you go, the passion the fans have just about every place that you go, I don’t know how it could get any better,” Saban said.
The reality is that it can’t get any better in the SEC. It is the best it has ever been.